Richfield pioneers a budget transparency tool

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 8, 2013 - 11:53 PM

New site allows citizens to analyze finances, track trends.

Richfield has become the first city in Minnesota to use a new budget transparency tool that allows people to find and analyze city finances on an easily understood Web page.

The page allows users to see the big budget picture or more detailed information.

With four years of data on the site, users can track trends and see how costs have changed over time. They can also drill down for more detailed information.

They can compare how overtime costs have changed (they decreased since 2010) and how much the Fire Department spends on uniforms and clothing ($30,500 is budgeted this year).

Call up public works, and a graph or pie chart shows that almost half the department’s expenses were for street maintenance, with less than 4 percent going to administration.

Pam Dmytrenko, Richfield’s assistant city manager, said city officials saw the OpenGov program demonstrated at a meeting in Boston in September.

“We thought this was a good first step for us as far as trying to achieve more transparency, especially with the budget,” she said.

The city already posts its budget on its website, but it is 350 pages of dense information.

“Do you honestly expect people to pore through that?” Dmytrenko asked. “The beauty of this is that it provides information in a much more understandable form.”

Information on Richfield’s OpenGov page can be accessed by clicking or moving a mouse over graphics on the site. Data can be downloaded and shared on social media or e-mail, and there’s a link to e-mail a question to the city.

Richfield chose to post information about its general fund, which pays most of the day-to-day operating costs of running government.

“That covers essential services — police, fire, public works,” Dmytrenko said. “That’s the one people are most interested in.”

Before the city adds any more data, officials want to see how it’s used, she said. The city may form focus groups to see what users think.

“We want to get some feedback, see if people find it understandable and beneficial,” Dmytrenko said.

While the numbers on the website are clear, there are no keys to what acronyms or abbreviations mean. For example, Dmytrenko said a reference to REEP refers to a program that reimburses employees for education related to their jobs. Anyone with questions can call or e-mail the city, she said.

The program cost less than $2,000, and Richfield will probably stick with it for at least a couple of years to give it a good test and to see if people use it.

“We have the truth in taxation meeting in December, so we’ll keep putting it out there for people to use,” Dmytrenko said. “We are trying to focus on civic engagement, and we hope people will find this useful.”

 

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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